Prisoners’ Wives – Jonas Armstrong, Emma Rigby PREVIEW

Polly Walker as sassy Francesca. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC1, starts Tuesday, 31 January, 9pm

Story: ‘I’m your dream ticket,’ Steve tells his happy, young pregnant wife, Gemma – just before armed police smash down the front door and take him away on suspicion of murder. Though convinced of his innocence, Gemma is still pitched into a frightening new life as a prisoner’s wife…

Where this week’s other new crime series Inside Men (see below) is full of tension, thievery and shotguns, Prisoners’ Wives has less action and is mainly about relationships under strain. It is an absorbing drama that veers away from plot twists and shocks in favour of believable characters whose lives are freefalling into turmoil.

Steve (Jonas Armstrong) and Gemma (Emma Rigby)

Written and created by Julie Gearey, the six-parter’s opening episode introduces us to Gemma, who is young, happily married to Steve and pregnant. Her idyll is shattered along with her front door when heavily tooled up coppers smash into their home and arrest Steve for murder.

Gemma’s shame and fear
‘I swear, I don’t know anything,’ Steve tells her on her first visit to see him in prison. But why is Steve, who runs his own business, being held if there is no evidence, and why is there a two-hour gap in his alibi?

Gemma is alone and scared, having to get used a new group of friends, the prisoners’ wives. Convinced that Steve has been wrongfully arrested, Gemma rejects the friendship of bold and brassy Francesca, whose husband Paul is inside for drug running.

Is Steve guilty or innocent?

Julie Gearey, whose writing credits include Coronation Street, Casualty and The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, skilfully depicts Gemma’s loneliness and fear, as the mum-to-be tries to hide her shame over Steve’s arrest from her workmates as well as her beloved foster mum. She has the shock of biometric scans and body searches at the prison, and the cruel bullying of the detective in charge of Steve’s case.

Polly Walker as Francesca
Emma Rigby is well cast as the pretty and fragile Gemma, looking about 14 years old in what must be a tough role as woman who’s in tears in every other scene. Jonas Armstrong is good as the husband we’re not sure about, but it is Polly Walker as queen bee Francesca who gives the show a lot of heart.

Sassy and living in luxury, Francesca won’t be dissed by anyone, certainly not the pinstriped banker dad of her son’s girlfriend, and Gemma is eventually drawn to her.

Among the other main characters are Lou, who is certainly not living in luxury as she tries to get by selling drugs and hiding her partner’s prisoner status from their boy, Mason. And only glimpsed in the first episode is Harriet, who comes into the story more later on.

Heartache ahead

Prisoners’ wives Lou, Gemma, Francesca and Harriet

As the opener concludes, Gemma learns more about Steve’s predicament and it’s clear there will be big challenges and soul-searching ahead for the women. Refreshingly for a crime drama, it doesn’t finish with a daft twist but a tender moment that has the same effect – leaving a strong desire to see what happens next.

Cast: Jonas Armstrong Steve; Emma Rigby  Gemma; Polly Walker Francesca; Pippa Haywood Harriet; Iain Glen Paul, Natalie Gavin Lou

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